How can smart cities shape a happier life? The mechanism for developing a “Happiness Driven Smart City”

Smart cities are expected to provide better solutions for the intensified socio-economic and environmental challenges associated with unprecedented urbanisation by embracing advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs), where challenges like climate change, energy crisis, or social inequality could be addressed through the development and application of state-of-the-art technologies (United Nations, 2019). The idealised narrative of the smart city has been widely accepted and turned into global movement at an appreciable speed for economic expansion and societal transformation, with more than 1,000 cities globally having introduced smart city initiatives with Europe, North America, Japan and South Korea in the leading position (Deloitte, 2018).

However, it appears that smart city’s influence on human happiness has been paid only marginal attention amidst the practices of smart city development. It is often assumed that smart cities may carry both opportunities and risks to human happiness due to its technology-oriented essence, but little information is available to demonstrate which specific aspects of human happiness might benefit or get harmed from the introduction of smart city initiatives. In fact, until we understand how human happiness is affected by smart city initiatives, the holistic benefits of smart city development upon urban inhabitants will remain under question, no matter how much prosperity the advocators promise. The cost of rectifying the progress of smart city development would be huge if any strategy or policy leads to unexpected or unwanted directions which might jeopardise human happiness. Therefore, the big question with regard to the influence upon human happiness brought by smart city development is whether and how smart cities act upon human happiness.

This blog introduces the concept of the Happiness Driven Smart City (HDSC), which will be constructed as a three-layer interrelated functioning structure underpinned by a set of Strategic Measures. For this, four procedures will be conducted, 1) to propose the conceptualisation and principle characteristics of the Happiness Driven Smart City; 2) to construct the key factors contributing to the performance of HDSC characteristics; 3) to build-up the HDSC development mechanism; and 4) to develop the underpinning Strategic Measures and specific application toolkit of the HDSC mechanism.

  1. Happiness Driven Smart City: conceptualisation and characteristics

Figure 1 Happiness Driven Smart City: Conceptualisation and characteristics

2. Key factors contributing to characteristic performance in a Happiness Driven Smart City system

Table 1 Key factors contributing to HDSC characteristic performance

HDSC CharacteristicsFactor 1Factor 2Factor 3Factor 4
Efficient and green physical infrastructure (HDSC1)MobilityEnergyPublic Utilities 
Labour-friendly and innovative economy (HDSC2)EmploymentInnovative SpiritEntrepreneurship 
Inclusive and attractive society (HDSC3)EducationHealthSafetyCulture and Leisure
Sustainable and eco-friendly natural environment (HDSC4)Air qualityPollution and Waste Treatment  

3. Mechanism for developing Happiness Driven Smart City

The synthesised characteristics of a Happiness Driven Smart City presented in Section 1 and the corresponding key factors identified in Section 2 are used to build up the mechanism for developing a Happiness Driven Smart City. The mechanism for developing a Happiness Driven Smart City can be portrayed graphically in Figure 2 and is composed of three components, namely, Overarching objective (top-layer), Characteristics (medium-layer) and Factors (bottom-layer). The working mechanism of HDSC shows the structural relationships between these three components. The bottom-layer Factors are the sources of changing the performance of HDSC Characteristics, which in turn contribute to the Overarching objective of developing a Happiness Driven Smart City. The functions of the HDSC system are underpinned by a set of Strategic Measures which act directly upon the Factors in the HDSC system. By applying various Strategic Measures to change Factors, momentum can be gained to improve the performance of medium-layer Characteristics. Consequently, the Overarching objective of developing a Happiness Driven Smart City can be achieved.

Figure 2 Three-layer mechanism system for developing a Happiness Driven Smart City

4. Strategic measures for the HDSC development mechanism

As shown in Figure 2, the key to make a Happiness Driven Smart City happen is the application of a set of Strategic Measures. These Strategic Measures are developed through examining the interrelationship between the three components in the HDSC system, and the examination and establishment of the Strategic Measures is conducted through a comprehensive literature review. Consequently, a set of Strategic Measures have been developed, which are presented by reference to each of the four HDSC Characteristics, as shown in Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively. In these tables, a shortlist of Strategic Measures is developed in addressing different factors which exert a driving influence upon the concerned HDSC Characteristic.

Table 2 Strategic Measures for improving the performance of HDSC characteristic “Efficient and green physical infrastructure” (HDSC1)

Factors influencing HDSC1Strategic Measures to act on factors for improving the performance of HDSC1
F11:MobilitySM111: To integrate the principles of green transport into the process of developing smart mobility thus the performance of green infrastructure will be improved. By developing a leveraged mobility paradigm between walking, cycling and driving, greenhouse gas emission will be reduced. SM112: To eliminate possible negative effects caused by the misuse and monopoly of smart mobility technologies which would hurt the users’ benefits and affect negatively the development of HDSC in the long run. For example, regulations shall be formulated to ensure smart mobility service providers take responsibilities in delivering a greener and more equal transport system.
F12:EnergySM121: From the industrial aspect, to take consideration of both the optimisation of energy sources and conservation on the consumption end. For example, integrating smart grids with renewable energy resources is a direct and effective solution for improving green grid management; adopting artificial intelligence and big data analysis into building, manufacture and transportation sectors to forecast and minimize energy consumption is proved effective for minimizing energy consumption and consequently mitigating impacts upon environment and climate. SM122: From the individual aspect, to create an advantageous environment with the facility of technology to encourage individual energy saving behaviours. The potential impact of occupants energy saving behaviour on buildings is evidenced and identified as an essential approach to improve energy efficiency in green buildings and communities without jeopardizing the level of comfort.
F13:Public UtilitiesSM131: To explore resource efficiency and utilization opportunities from both service providers and consumers in smart utility network development. For example, artificial intelligence application in leak detection of water distribution pipelines will increase water resource utilization efficiency. The water/gas consumption feedback technology can help to reduce household wasteful behaviour to trigger the decrease of environmental impact in every step along the whole journey of resources processed by public utility facilities.

Table 3 Strategic Measures for improving the performance of HDSC characteristic “Labour-friendly and innovative economy” (HDSC2)

Factors influencing HDSC2Strategic Measures to act on factors for improving the performance of HDSC2
F21:EmploymentSM211: To prepare solutions and resources to minimize the potential disruptive impact on employment during the dramatic change process and to create a labour-friendly employment market environment to help citizens quickly fit into the new economy. Policies to stimulate education evolution for promptly fulfilling high profile new business requirements and training programs to look after disadvantaged labour shall be taken into full implementation. SM212: To enact labour protection and social protection rules and regulations that are suitable and in favour of employees to keep new digital economy development under a labour-friendly premise. It would be ideal if the policymakers are able to take a longer view and make foreseeable actions on the employment influence arising from the digital economy instead of keeping the legal and social regulation system in a passive adaption situation.
F22:Innovative SpiritSM221: To make the smart city as a nexus for open innovation, which should not just refer to industry but also the ways government and other institutions work and collaborate with society, to jointly create an inclusive, labour-friendly and innovative economy. All sources of innovation from different levels and different sectors shall be encouraged to actualize an innovative and diverse economy where technology plays the catalyst role. SM222: To inspire the potential of new bottom-up approaches based on user-generated content through the experiences of the citizens themselves, which enables citizens to build social capital and the capacity required to become co-creators and co-producers of new and innovative services with the means to ensure that they are delivered in more effective and inclusive ways, taking full advantage of new Internet-based technologies and applications.
F23:EntrepreneurshipSM231: To encourage the utilization of new technologies and promote a strong pro-entrepreneurial state ethos where an innovative economy is nurtured and accelerated. SM232: To encourage and facilitate entrepreneurial citizens to trigger, apply and transform emerging technologies and knowledge into new products, new jobs, and new firms, which in turn enables the creation of a labour-friendly innovative economy. SM233: To promote neo-liberal attempts to inclusively and effectively incorporate the local community into the entrepreneurial city, via the approaches of various participatory ICT projects.

Table 4 Strategic Measures for improving the performance of HDSC characteristic “Inclusive and attractive society” (HDSC3)

Factors influencing HDSC3Strategic Measures to act on factors for improving the performance of HDSC3
F31:EducationSM311: To create an easy environment for innovation during the digital transformation process of education through a participatory approach to enhance social inclusiveness and talent attractiveness in the education sector. All stakeholders in this venturous journey, such as teachers, students, administrators, online platform companies, software and hardware providers etc., shall be encouraged to be more active to innovate and design better solutions to meet the new need. SM312: To address the equity of education resources and opportunities to avoid extreme deprivations caused by the digital transformation to ensure a more inclusive development in cities. For example, online education shall take in consideration of the balance between commercial online education programs and public-free courses so as to benefit the widest audience from the well-educated to the low-skilled learners.
F32:HealthSM321: To improve accessibility to health facilities and services to the widest public for disease prevention and health promotion where technological innovation can be applied as a tool for empowering social inclusiveness. For example, more attention and funding shall be paid to mental health care services where big data and artificial intelligence technology can play an innovative role in prediction and diagnosis. SM322: To encourage the application of new technologies aiming to produce new opportunities to improve the health treatment to a more accurate and effective level where patients can receive higher quality and safer medical service with reduced cost and wastage. The improvement of affordability and effectiveness in medical services and health care driven by smart technology will positively affect the inclusiveness of the society.
F33:SafetySM331: To create a safer social environment by taking actions to prevent the occurrence of crime before it happens via the application of new technology-based crime risk prediction analysis approaches. Safety clearly exerts higher impacts on urban attractiveness.
F34:Culture and LeisureSM341: To create an environment that encourages wide public participation, cultural diversity, digital equity in the context of digital technology to contribute to a city’s attractiveness and social inclusion. The development of a cultural policy that aims for cultural participation may also involve other policy areas such as economic and education sectors. SM342: To provide a pleasant environment and necessary support for both offline and online leisure activities to provide greater opportunities for urban residents to enjoy a higher level of life satisfaction and social inclusion.

Table 5 Strategic Measures for improving the performance of HDSC characteristic “Sustainable and eco-friendly natural environment” (HDSC4)

Factors influencing HDSC4Strategic Measures to act on factors for improving the performance of HDSC4
F41:Air QualitySM411: To monitor and forecast air quality more precisely in both vicinity (building and neighbourhood) and city level through collecting and analysing data with the ubiquitous upgraded devices and advanced algorithms, and to satisfy the evolved need for environment protection and human life by taking more targeted and effective solutions. SM412: To enable citizens to have tailored air quality notification to help prevent any exposure risks amongst vulnerable groups to reduce the ecological threat on public health (ibid).
F42:Pollution and Waste TreatmentSM421: To control emissions and effluents through IoT-enabled smart system in various sectors including building, manufacturing industry and logistics etc. SM422: To modernize traditional waste management systems to prevent the negative effects of incorrect operation on both people and the environment during the whole process including waste collection, disposal, recycling, and recovery (ibid). SM423: To enable citizens to track daily personal pollution footprints via smart approaches to better understand and behave upon reducing waste emission and production towards a sustainable and eco-friendly environment.

The proposed theoretical mechanism can be applied with specific assessment criteria to examine to what extent a smart city initiative implemented in a given city has enhanced urban residents’ happiness and has achieved the goal of a Happiness Driven Smart City. The application of the HDSC mechanism can thus help urban governors to understand the status quo of smart city development and to better guide the design of smart cities towards a happiness-driven and human-centred direction.

Note: This blog is based upon a recent publication on the journal of Sustainable Cities and Society.


Development Transformation as the Goal for Digital Transformation

Richard Heeks, Bookie Ezeomah, Gianluca Iazzolino, Aarti Krishnan, Rose Pritchard & Qingna Zhou

There’s a lot of talk currently about digital transformation for development.  Sometimes styled “DX4D”, a quick definition would be radical change in development processes and structures enabled by digital systems.

Digital transformation is thus not a goal.  Instead, development transformation is the goal and starting point.  But what kind of development transformation?

In this post, we summarise what development transformation would mean under different development paradigms, and some implications for digital.  The table below is not exhaustive of the various paradigms and it rather brutally simplifies rich and complex ideas.  However, it does help clarify two key DX4D tenets:

  • Vision Matters: unless you know where you want to get to, digital can’t help take you there.
  • Visions Differ: different paradigms aim for very different destinations and, hence, different journeys in the application of digital.

If you have paradigms you’d like to add or you have improvements to offer on what’s in the table, do let us know.

Development Paradigm Essence? Transformation? Digital Implications?
Neoliberal Markets and market relations are the central foundation for economic development.  They, and not government regulation or vested interests, are the best way to allocate development resources and to generate productivity improvements and growth.  The state acts to support market-driven development. Neoliberalism is thus about the reformatting of politics, society and individuals according to market logics, the pursuit of profits, and individual responsibility principles. Stabilisation to reduce government expenditure.  Liberalisation to roll back state regulation, subsidies and other interventions in markets and the private sector.  Privatisation to transfer ownership from public to private sector. Digital, particularly via platforms, must enable the formation and presence of markets in all sectors, and a step change in market functioning via datafication and machine-readability of market actors and processes. Digital will also enable the development of private sector responsibility for public service delivery, and major improvements in efficiency of remaining public sector functions.
Structuralist Particular socio-economic structures inhibit development.  For dependency variants, it is unequal relationships of exchange between core and periphery, whether understood in terms of countries, regions, or more immaterial geographies.  For Marxist and related anti-capitalist paradigms, it is unequal relationships of exchange between capital and labour. The exploitative socio-economic structures must be broken away from and/or replaced.  From a dependency perspective, at the extreme, this means autarky and a focus on localised systems of production and consumption.  From a Marxist perspective, it means the end of capitalism and its replacement with structures of common ownership. Digital must support radical structural change based around localised production and/or cooperative or similar ownership structures.
Sustainable Ensuring resource usage does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; with variants ranging from green growth through to de-growth. Major reductions in resource usage including improvements in efficiency of resource-using processes.  Major reductions in polluting outputs from processes. Internalisation of negative environmental externalities so as to gauge the true cost of economic growth. Digital must support a step-change in resource usage and polluting outputs of all economic and social processes, including those involving digital itself.  Digital must also support environmental mapping and monitoring to track progress of sustainability. 
Human Development Development as freedom; in particular economic, political, social, security and informational freedom for all so that no-one is left behind and all have the opportunity to be and to do what they wish.     Changing contexts so that there is equality of opportunity and equality of choice; especially for those currently denied those opportunities.     Digital must be not just accessible but usable and appropriable by all.  It must then support the ability of all to choose the kind of lives and livelihoods that they value; thus requiring some customisation to individual contexts rather than a blanket equality of access to assets, institutions and livelihoods.
Decolonisation Reversal of the current and legacy negative impacts of colonisation. Enabling sovereignty and “self-determination of indigenous peoples over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems”[1].  Also understood – and drawing on the post-development roots of one strand of decolonisation – as the identification, challenging and revision or replacements of “assumptions, ideas, values and practices that reflect a colonizer’s dominating influence and especially a Eurocentric dominating influence”[2]. Digital must be accessible, usable and appropriable by indigenous peoples, enabling them to exercise self-determination.  Digital sovereignty will enable local “control over digital assets, such as data, content or digital infrastructure, or over the use of those assets”[3] and prevent uncontrolled extraction of value from these assets by others. For the latter understanding of decolonising transformation, digital must empower those who have been disempowered by Eurocentric domination of epistemics and discourse, and enable them to engage with and challenge that domination.  

Photo by Javier Miranda on Unsplash




Is there a silver lining to this covid-19 pandemic? The impact of government transfers on financial inclusion

The toll of covid-19 pandemic is still being counted. Meanwhile, new variants continue to threaten because the reservoir of people infected is still large enough for some random mutations to take hold and spread. Excess deaths, a global measure, were estimated by the WHO to be around 14.9 million in 2020-2021.

With all this immense suffering, is there a ray of hope? After all, governments provided support to family finances, delivered through digital and other means. With deepening financial inclusion (more families owning bank accounts), there are benefits to share. Account holders can smooth consumption and manage risks, banks can arbitrage between savers and inventors, governments can expect increased investment in the economy and better information on the funds circulating, useful for macroeconomic management.

If the outpouring of governments’ responses through digital transfer programmes improves financial inclusion, all is not lost. Examples of these programs have been curated by various groups including the World Bank. I used their database to mark whether the country has any digital transfer program (Gentilini 2022, Gentilini et al 2021, Marin & Palacios 2021) then collated the last three global financial inclusion surveys, the Global Findex, 2014, 2017 and 2021. (I wrote about these surveys before.) There were some 400,000 adults aged ≥15 in 146 countries analysed.

To estimate the digital transfer impact, one can apply a double difference estimator, using the available information before and after the pandemic started in 2020. The estimator assumes parallel trends in financial inclusion: countries with and without such transfer moved side-by-side in the past 7 years. Surely, they did not.

So I applied a doubly robust version, balancing the trends with information on society’s readiness for such programmes (digital adoption index in 2014) which accompanies the World Development Report 2016. Three outcomes are important: account in banks, in any formal financial institution and as mobile money (all binaries).

Digital readiness in 2014 and excess death in 2020-2021

Countries were visited by this pandemic at different digital readiness as shown by the span of digital adoption index in 2014. But initial digital readiness relates to lower excess death later in the pandemic, once readiness passes the median (Figure 1). Beyond the median, excess death follows a steeper decline. The pandemic has witnessed governments and society deliver transfers and various supports using digital technology, all this shows in excess deaths.

Among the survivors: financial inclusion in the pandemic’s wake

Because transfer programmes were delivered through digital means in some countries but not others, what impact do digital ones have in financial inclusion? I first check whether countries’ readiness indeed relates to delivering support via digital transfers. The marginal plot shows that the relation is positive, with more digital adoption in 2014 associates with higher probabilities of digital transfers in 2020.

Finally, putting all this together, the data showed an impact of digital transfer programme of 2% on owning any bank account to 8% on owning a mobile money account in the wake of the pandemic (Figure 3).

Perhaps this deepening financial inclusion is a ray of hope amidst the immense suffering. Governments, businesses and families can draw benefits from being part of a more inclusive financial system in the wake of this pandemic.

Global Development Institute – University of Manchester

United Nations University – World Institute for Development Economics Research


Gentilini U. 2022. Cash Transfers in Pandemic Times : Evidence, Practices, and Implications from the Largest Scale Up in History. World Bank Group.

Gentilini, U., Almenfi, A., Blomquist, J., Dale, P., De La Flor Giuffra, L., Desai, V., Fontenez, M., Galicia Rabadan, G., Lopez, V., Marin Espinosa, A., Natarajan, H., Newhouse, D., Palacios, R., Quiroz, Ana., Rodriguez Alas, C., Sabharwal, G. and Weber, M. (2021) ““Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19: A Real-Time Review of Country Measures”. World Bank, Version 15 (May 14).

Marin G. and Palacios R. 2021. The Role of Digital in the COVID-19 Social Assistance Response. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.

Tampubolon G. 2018. The Puzzle of Digital Financial Inclusion: A Generation Game? ICTs for Development blog. World Bank 2016. World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. World Bank.

Digital tourism and marginal providers after the crisis

Bouncing back” in tourism should not be about connecting local providers to platforms but ensuring that available online tools provide inclusive outcomes

As tourism has become global it has become an important part of the economy in a number of countries of the global south. It brings foreign currency into the economy and provides a surprising number of jobs to those who provide services. For all the ethical and environmental issues it poses, in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Tanzania and Rwanda, the loss of tourists during the pandemic led to crises. Vast swathes of workers and firms have had to move into other sectors with broader implications for economies.

A major imperative following the crisis has been to ensure that tourism can bounce back. Institutions such as the OECD and the UN, as well as development donors and governments have pushed recovery plans with significant “digital tourism” components. Embracing digital tourism is seen as a quick win. Tourists have grown more used to online platforms – whether that be booking hotels, arranging transportation, sharing tourism experiences or posting reviews. The vision of recovery plans is that if local providers can embrace platforms, not only will they become more efficient, but drive forward tourism demand.

Drawing on recent research examining platform practices of small/marginal tourism service providers in Indonesia and Rwanda [1], we argue these visions for digital tourism may have limits. This research highlights three major considerations: the contexts of the adoption of platforms by tourism firms, the inflexibility of tourism platforms, and how tourism development may better be guided by grassroots online practices.

Platform use by small service providers

With several decades of investment in internet connectivity, the costs and barriers to internet use have been reducing, leading to growing use. This is especially the case for businesses in tourism, where digital tourism is becoming the norm. In both Indonesia and Rwanda, major global platforms such as TripAdvisor, Uber,, Airbnb, Google maps and Traveloka are now well-established.

With the growing ubiquity, we might say that platforms are moving from something that forward-thinking firms opt into, to being non-negotiable for all firms. It is now almost like an infrastructure that firms need to be part of. This is true even amongst more marginal service providers such as tour guides, tiny hotels and those providing cultural activities who would use mobile devices to be part of such platforms.

Whether they want to go online or not, they are aware they are being mapped, rated and discussed online.

The complexity of tourism platforms

At first glance platforms seem to offer significant potential. They are easy to sign up for tourism providers and provide a way to quickly reach and interact with tourists across the globe. They often offer services such as online payments and booking systems that can make operations more efficient.

However, for small tourism providers platforms remain a challenge. While it is easy to join, successfully harnessing these platforms requires a broad range of technical skills. Successful firms need to be adept at website design, digital media skills and social media use to be able to stand out.

Challenges are not just about the capabilities of service providers, platforms are often highly complex and inflexible. For example, in Rwanda, small hotels were spending time and resources trying to move up search rankings on platforms. In Indonesia, some providers of tourism services were trying to negotiate algorithmic pricing systems.

With local support from platforms often non-existent and limited flexibility, small providers in these countries often suffered in competition with larger and foreign providers who were better places to make gains from being online.

Agency of tourism service providers

Even with these significant challenges, small service providers were able to combine digital tools for benefits – using shared calendar software, mobile apps, cloud sharing, online translation and social media to collaborate with customers and better fit with their daily needs.

Moreover, in Indonesia some tourism enterprises have come together to collaborate in more social- or environmentally-orientated online spaces.  In some other countries, we have also seen the success of commercial platforms more attuned to small enterprise needs and activities (e.g. South African platform Nightbridge)

These types of activity are very different to the policy prescriptions of joining the platform “juggernauts” for pandemic recovery. They suggest alternative ways forwards for small tourism providers – by amplifying the bottom-up activities already occurring outside mainstream platforms, and by being aware that service providers are negotiating multiple platforms and online software.

Summary: Bouncing back and “digitalisation”

These experiences of tourism and the goals of pandemic recovery are mirrored in other sectors in the global south. Governments and donors are not sitting back but seeking to play an active part in recovery through support. And, like tourism, one of the areas that are repeatedly mentioned is “digitalisation” – supporting so-called “inefficient” small firms to connect and use digital platforms for economic gain. 

But as this research shows, the reality is that platforms pose challenges. Connecting online is often no longer the major barrier. Rather platforms fit poorly with the skills of small firms and their growing complexity favour better-financed firms. They rarely adapt to the challenges faced in global south contexts.

Blindly shepherding firms towards adopting large platforms may negatively affect small providers. Interventions should rather support more creative uses of technology and leverage the unique relationships and applications that could afford more inclusive outcomes.

[1] This article is based on the recently published paper:

Foster, C., & Bentley, C. (2022). Examining Ecosystems and Infrastructure Perspectives of Platforms: The Case of Small Tourism Service Providers in Indonesia and Rwanda. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 50

An open-access version is available to download.